Forever French Toast
By Bill Moore
I sat with my wife and several of her relatives at a large round table in the Handi Corner coffee shop in St. Maries, Idaho, population 2,800. Just the day before, we had attended her father's funeral. He had died a mere three days short of his 94th birthday. He'd lived a long and eventful life, dying peacefully in his sleep.
My father-in-law had been a part of the logging industry for most of his life. And when he wasn't sawing logs or splitting cedar shakes by hand, he hunted and fished. With my brother-in-law's covert assistance, he'd even bagged a Whitetail deer last November at the age of 93.
So relatively few tears were shed over his passing -- we all knew he had sensed it was his time -- but all of us will miss him greatly. No longer being able to enjoy his ready smile and hear his countless yarns is what hurts the most.
Still, it was an amicable group seated around the table as we sipped steaming hot cups of coffee and chatted about our lives. There were maybe another half dozen customers in the restaurant that sits on the corner of Main Street and 6th. The occasional logging truck growls past under its heavy load of slender white and black pine. A US Navy recruitment poster is taped to the cafe door. St. Maries is a logging community on the St. Joseph river. My wife had gone to high school here, as had most of her brothers and sisters, two of whom were seated at the table with us.
The waitress, a middle-aged woman with a no-nonsense air about her, asked me what I wanted for breakfast. I knew exactly what I wanted the minute I saw it on the menu. Everyone else was ordering eggs-over-easy or omelets, but I wanted French toast, with the emphasis on "French." I said it loud enough for everyone in the tiny restaurant to hear. I was making a political statement as much as a culinary one. The lady at the table behind me who had been reading the local newspaper spoke up.
"Good for you. I am French Canadian."
In case you've been on another planet for the last month or so, anything considered French -- including "French fries" and "French toast" have been renamed in certain dim corners of America to spite the nation of France, whose leadership has taken what some consider "anti-American" stances in the global debate over war with Iraq. This trend began with a restaurant in Georgia where the owner decided to rename the deep fried potato snack invented in Belgium, oddly enough, "Freedom" fries. The idea eventually reached the cafeteria of the US Congress where the Ohio Congressman responsible for overseeing the place, ordered a similar menu change.
This childish animus towards one of America's oldest allies -- if it hadn't have been for French intervention during the Revolution, America would most likely still be a part of the British empire -- would be silly if it weren't so painfully embarrassing in its arrogance and pettiness.
That morning in the cafe, America had not yet launched it's assault on Iraq and I still held out the slim hope the Administration would listen to reason, listen to the wishes of most of the rest of the world. By the time my wife and I had returned from dinner with her best friend in school -- a woman married to a kind, hardworking Iranian -- the first shots of war had been fired.
One of the great joys of living in the remote reaches of northern Idaho is the ability it gives you to simply tune out the world. Here amidst towering, forest-covered mountains are nestled quiet valleys like the one in which my wife grew up and her father passed his last days. Of course, people have satellite television, radio and telephones that enable them to connect to the outside world. But during our brief stay with her brother, a stocky, barrel-chested heavy equipment operator who wears T-shirts emblazoned with the name of his local labor union over an American eagle, the television was seldom on.
Instead, we enjoyed waking up to bright, frosty mornings warmed by a wood stove fire and an impromptu concert by a pair of Canada geese that have taken up residence for the second year in a row in the meadow below the house through which the spring-swollen Santa Creek flows.
Nights in this part of Idaho are equally spectacular. The air is crisp and the sky twinkles with a million stars, another awesome display lost in the glare of Omaha's city lights. Here in this tranquil valley where the closest town is more than thirty miles away on the far side of Harvard Hill, it was hard to imagine that war was about to errupt and that terror would come roaring in on stubby, subsonic wings under the identical assemblage of planets and constellations.
When I learned that the war had begun, I decided to deliberately tune it out. I refused to let it voluntarily intrude into my Eden. American media had abetted the war-mongers, in my view. It had failed to ask the hard questions. For too long it had been nothing more than a propaganda organ for the right. I was not going to give CNN and Fox and MSNBC and the major networks the satisfaction of my viewership. They clearly wanted this war for financial reasons. They wanted to drive up viewership and I decided not to be one of them. We kept the radio off on the long drive out and back across South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and finally Nebraska.
Instead, we passed the time listening to audio tape books by James Herriott and P.D. James, while soaking in scenery so remarkable in its grandeur that it felt as if my very soul was being washed with each passing mile. I longed to park the car and just sit there all day doing nothing but bask in the sunshine, smell the pine-tinged air and listen to the babbling rush of the Clark Fork and Yellowstone rivers. I suspect I am not the first tourist travelling through these parts who has wished the same as we all scurry towards distant obligations and responsibilities.
Every several hundred miles, we'd have to refuel and briefly the "real" world would again intrude. The gas station owner in St. Maries had his television set to CNN, as did the truck stop north of Idaho Falls and the Appleby's restaurant in Ogden, Utah. Not suprisingly, the only news was about the downing of the same Marine helicopter. After some 600 miles and eleven hours of driving, we'd missed nothing of the "war". Instead, we had peacefully breeched passes blanketed in pure white snow and crossed lush valleys dotted with black herds of Angus. We'd enjoyed the writings of P.D. James while losing ourselves in a barely tamed wilderness so overpowering as to uplift and humble us at the same moment.
My soul needed this trip and I suspect, so do most of the rest of us. My wife and I could have flown to her father's funeral, but I knew I needed to get away from the aggravation, the anxiety, and the fear that has descended on America like a damp, heavy woolen blanket. Out in the middle of the South Dakota plains and under the shadow of Montana's snow-capped peaks, the problems of the world seem to recede, if only for a short time. For a few all-too-brief days, we escaped and relished every moment of it. Like children, we gawked and pointed at the herds of antelope grazing on sage-covered slopes, sunning themselves, out of the wind. Across the middle of Nebraska we finally got to witness the migration of our world-renowned Sand Hill Cranes.
And speaking of wind, it was along I-80 some 40 miles west of Laramie that we came upon the largest wind farm I have ever seen in my life. Giant white wind turbines -- hundreds of them -- spun slowly in the Spring breeze above a brilliant white Wyoming landscape covered by a storm that only a day earlier had dumped as much as 11 feet of snow on parts of the Rockies. I know it sounds cliche, but my heart leapt with joy and pride at the sight. Wyoming coal powers much of America's electrical energy. Here its wind was helping produce pollution-free energy, as well.
My three pieces of French Toast arrived and as I poured hot maple syrup over them, I relished the moment, brief as it was. I am told that this culinary delight was actually invented in Cleveland, Ohio. It wasn't the taste I relished, but the modest act of defiance and reason.
I suspect that long after Sadaam has ceased to trouble his people and the world, long after G. W. Bush has retired to his ranch in Crawford, long after voters have sent that Ohio Congressman home, that French toast will still be called "French Toast." The Yellowstone, the Clark Fork, the Snake will still flow inexorably towards the sea and travellers will find their troubled spirits lifted by the timelessness of a landscape greater than all our collective fears and worries combined.
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