Monday, January 4, 2010

The Crepe-Making American

“I can’t do this anymore. I feel like I’m gonna pass out,” says Grégoire as he ladles batter into the middle of the butter-greased crêpière.

“Have you eaten today?” I ask, looking into his full moon face.

He picks up a wooden stick attached to a flat edge to spread the batter over the flat disc. As he rotates his wrist, I’m reminded of the circles I used to create with a compass in my high school Geometry class.

“No. It’s not that. I haven’t been sleeping much lately. Too much studying.”
I want to hug him and tell him it will all be okay, but don’t. Instead, I watch for the telltale bubbles that appear in pancakes when it’s time to turn them. They never appear. The batter simply fuses together and becomes firm. Grégoire eases a long metal spatula under the edges of the crepe until all of it sits lightly on the griddle. Then in one deft move, he flips it, revealing gold on the other side.

“I don’t want to be here. I hate it here.” He looks up at the 16-year old girl who watches his every move. “Sugar, jam or Nutella?” he mumbles.

“Sugar,” she blushes.

He picks up the box of granulated sugar and sprinkles some along the center line of the crepe.

“So, then, why are you here?” I ask.

He makes four creases with the spatula, folds the crepe into a tight package and scoots it onto a paper plate. “Two Euros,” he demands, not looking at the girl. She hands him a coin. He drops it into the cash box and collapses into the chair at the back of the booth. The girl moves on.

“I have to help my Dad.”

I nod. I was there to see his Dad who’d told me he’d be there helping Grégoire.

“Hey, would you mind working the booth for a while? Just until my father gets back? He should be back any minute. I gotta lie down.”

I eye the crêpière, replay the crepe-making steps over in my mind. I shiver. Grégoire looks up at me from the chair, fists stuffed into his jacket pockets, back hunched into the letter C. “Okay,” I say. Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into, I think. “Go home. Go to bed. I’ll be fine ‘til your father gets here.”

“Thanks!” he grins, jumps up and is gone.

Bonjour. I’d like a crepe with jam and my wife wants one with Nutella,” says my first customer.

“Coming right up!” I say. He grins at me as I search for the round, metal brush to grease the crêpière. I feel like a fraud and decide to come clean. “I’m American,” I say as if that would excuse me. “So, this is going to be a very special crepe. And, if I mess up, it’s on the house.” He laughs. I join him.

Repeating the steps I saw Grégoire so masterfully execute, I pour and spread my first crepe. So far, so good. If not perfectly round, one would recognize it as a crepe. I concentrate my work, only occasionally looking up at the customer. I can’t help but smile—an American making and selling crepes at a French Christmas market, which would be like a French person selling hotdogs at a Yankee’s game.

“So, what are you doing in Provins?” my customer asks.

“Oh, I’m visiting an old friend. I used to be the English assistant at the high school many years ago,” I offer as I slide the spatula under the left side of the crepe. It lifts off the skillet. So far, so good. I slide the spatula under the right side. The crepe lifts with ease, but as I pull the spatula out, it starts to tear. I flatten the metal against the skillet and wiggle it toward me. Off comes a piece of the crepe. I look up at the man and smile, “I guess this one is on the house.” He laughs. I finish the dilapidated crepe and hand it to him.

By now, I’ve gathered a small crowd. Everyone wants to see the crepe-making American. I look out at their amused faces, sense they’re rooting for me. I repeat all the steps for the second crepe, but this time create a perfect golden disc with no tears. I whip out a white paper napkin to cover the crepe and serve it to my customer.

“That one, I’ll pay for,” he says.

“That’ll be 3 Euros,” I beam.

He hands me the money and says “Bonne continuation!

“Next!” I announce.

Half a dozen crepes later, produced with varying degrees of success, I sit down for a break..I’m covered in batter, my hands sticky with Nutella, sugar and strawberry jam. I lick my fingers and dry them with a paper napkin. I really should call Patrice, Grégoire’s father, I think. I look at the clock on my cell phone—5:30 p.m., the time of day when the French traditionally indulge in an afternoon snack. Visions of 5 and 10-year olds pulling on their parents’ coat sleeves and demanding crepes blast through my head. I dial.

“Hey, it’s me. I’m down here making crepes at your stand.”

“Where’s Grégoire?” he asks.

“He went home. He’s sick,” I answer. “He looked like he might pass out. Really,” I add, pleading the young man’s case.

“Okay, I’ll be right there.”

“Take your time,” I respond. “I’m managing.”

I was having fun too. Of course, if I were mobbed by a bunch of hungry people all wanting their goûter or snack, that might change.

Maman,” whines a five-year old boy with round glasses that look like the bottom of an old Coke bottle. “I want a crepe.”

“I want one too, maman,” says his older sister, twirling her umbrella into the chest of an oncoming teenager.

“Look! Crepes,” says the teen to a trio of girlfriends. “Let’s get one.”

I ladle batter onto the crêpière, watching the line form in front of me.

“I want mine with Nutella,” announces bottle-bottom boy.

“Me too! Make mine with Nutella,” says umbrella girl.

“Coming right up,” I say. Damn, I think. I forgot to grease the griddle. I keep my fingers crossed and pray that Patrice will hurry up and get here.

I tear the crepe in two when I try to flip it and have to start all over again. This time I generously apply butter to the crêpière.

“You messed up. You messed up,” taunts bottle-bottom boy. “Hey, look Laure, she messed up.”

“Mom, tell her to hurry. I’m hungry,” whines his sister.

The mother gives me a look, and then tries to distract them by asking what they did that afternoon at their grandparents’ house. I finally finish and hand the Nutella crepes over. While the mother searches her coin purse for change, I grease the crêpière again and ladle batter for the next round. I smile at the teenaged girl and say “Bonjour,” indicating she can now tell me what kind of crepe she wants.

“A crepe with jam, please,” she says.

The mother finally hands me a 20 Euro note. I bend down into the money box and dig around for change. When I stand back up, relief has arrived, donning a blinking Santa Claus hat.

“And what kind of crepe would you like, mademoiselle?” he gushes.

Thank God, I think. I can’t do this anymore. I think I’m gonna pass out.