Thursday, January 5, 2012

Moules Frites and The Wedding Bridge

In middle school I remember watching some Sally Struthers-like commercial plea for the children and feeling quietly confused and sad. “Why,” I asked my mother, “were the children’s bellies so big when they were so hungry?” Mom tried to explain Kwashiorkor as simply as she could to middle-school-me– how the hungriest bellies are sometimes the largest tummies because the body is trying to eat anything it can find inside their bodies and how it processes those things... wrong. Gazing down at my tiny waistline, contemplating the peanut butter balls I had just eaten, I insisted that we were going to feed one of those bellies. My parents (even though they were staring down the barrel of bankruptcy at the time) encouraged me and agreed to sponsor a kid and filled out the necessary paperwork. A few weeks later, a hand-written card arrived in our mailbox from our 10-year-old beneficiary and I wrote back and forth with my African “sibling” for the following year.

Photo: Roger S. Duncan / Forecaster
That was the last time that I was a true pen pal with anyone until this year when my grandfather and I started writing each other bi-weekly letters. His letters (always more prompt than mine) contained descriptions of the paintings that he was working on or had painted years and years ago, stories of my grandmother’s good nature and his continuing commitment to ski every winter. I had forgotten how gratifying scribbled addresses on confident, linen stationery could feel in my hand.

My grandfather at 87 years of age loves to tell his stories about travel and work. Stories that place him in Parisian bistros playing the ukulele for businessmen or buying old European candy companies and meeting wise strangers in bars (in short, a character for many a short story). And, in truth, he is the real benefactor of my European retreat. The family that is hosting me is an old colleague-turned-friend from his days traveling for business in the 60s. It is hard not to see this Belgian experience through his eyes.

So I’ve been spending some time visiting him this week. His apartment is a small gallery arrayed with paintings of WWII battlefields, New England landscapes, and artful Winslow Homer copies. A haloed vision of my grandmother hangs in pride of place near the piano she used to play and the whole house smells dimly of paint.

Heavy Water by Frank Lundblad
“You know,” he said after lunch the other day, “I think if you’re going to Brussels, we really should go and try the Moules Frites at Lion’s Pride here in Brunswick before you go.” Lion’s Pride is a Belgian establishment set off the highway of Maine and run by a proprietor who my grandfather praises for his comprehensive knowledge of beer. I have never been to a traditional Belgian restaurant (despite the fact that there are various places to sample Belgian ales and waffles throughout Seattle) and I have learned at this point to follow my grandfather’s lead and (among other things) to stay quiet when he’s telling a story. So last night, we all went to the outskirts of Brunswick on an unseasonably warm January evening and ordered three pots of mussels prepared in the customary Flemish style with fries.

If this American interpretation is any indicator, I am going to love the food in Belgium. I have always enjoyed mussels, but the light, garlicky broth that the mussels were simmered in was absolutely delicious. Apparently there are many variations on Moules Frites (from simmering them in ale or white wine, adding parsley or cooking them with crème fraiche). This chef suggests that they are going to be at their best when I arrive (between September and February) and that I might raise a few eyebrows if I suggest that the mussels were imported from the Netherlands. Good to know – I was just about to ask…

And, of course, the fries were served with mayo.

I love food that you eat with your hands – all of us knocking against each other’s knuckles as we emptied those pots. My grandfather turned to me and said “this is how you eat them in the Belgian fashion.” He took an empty shell and used its cracked opening to clamp on the meat in a fresh one and popped the mussel into his mouth, grinning broadly.

Afterwards, I shared some of the photos that my Belgian family sent me of the house I’ll be staying at in Belgium and my grandfather, eyes sparkly like he’d just come off of another Black Diamond trail at Sunday River, said “Oh – I wish I could go, too.”

My grandfather, active as he is (still biking five days a week and rigorous about attending his “Silver Sneaker” exercise classes) says that he doesn’t have much traveling left in him, hampered as he is by his breathing machine and some health problems (not that it keeps him from skiing each winter). But rest assured, Far Far, you’ll definitely be present for my jogs through the neighborhood, my tours through the Grand Place, or my visit to the Manneken Pis. Founder of this journey, I’ll definitely be thinking of you as I experience it.

And here is this little monument in time for him as I explore Europe. My mother is coming to visit in late February and she plans to rent a car – top of our list of places to visit will be Bruges and, while there, we plan on stopping by “The Wedding Bridge.” Many years ago, my grandfather went there one afternoon to paint and enjoyed the city on one of its rare sunny Saturdays with a stranger that he had met just that week at a party. That man who went with him later made a gift of that painting of the wedding bridge that still hangs at the foot of my grandfather’s stairs in his two-story house so that it greets him every morning as he comes down for breakfast. This February, I am going to go stand where his feet stood for hours as he sketched and made a new lifelong friend to ruminate on how some things hold the value of their own history for ages: paintings, stories, family, and the long list of what-have-yous that you’re familiar with. This symmetry is particularly reassuring when I’m a little nervous about how lonely I might be in a strange country – I feel comforted by the idea of inherited familiarity, as though somehow my blood will recognize the bridge and be similarly inspired. For some reason this equation makes sense to me: I can’t be too lonely in streets that my family has already traveled.  

Here is the painting of “The Wedding Bridge” – wish me a similar sunny afternoon.


  1. Why have we never spoke of your Far Far more at length? He sounds so cool! And he is a brilliant painter!

  2. This is a beautiful post. I love this blog!