Susan M. Sparks
My childhood was probably filled with pivotal moments that I just don’t remember unless I drive past the old family farm, which looks nothing like it did when I was growing up.
I remember us all crowded around the wobbly chrome and Formica table in the kitchen. The vinyl padded chairs squeaking under the weight of my dad and big brothers, my legs dangling like the drying blue jeans on the clothesline.
Midday was our big meal, so evening was simple, like ham and cheese.
You could count on it at least twice a week. One wafer thin slice of boiled ham, sometimes with little iridescent patches where it nearly froze in the fridge, the spots shimmering in the overhead light. Next, a narrow ribbon of cheddar curled off the block with a little metal wire thingy, and white bread. Maybe mustard, maybe mayo, maybe both. There were seven of us, which meant the ham was carefully and equitably parsed out, just never enough to satisfy my taste.
I’ll admit that I defaulted to that same menu for 57 years of my life, and I was mostly content with it, although I had increased both my quantity and quality of ham, graduating on to more elevated varieties like Black Forest.
And then, my life changed.
I ate a ham and cheese sandwich in Paris.
Not Paris, Illinois, or Kentucky. Legit, Paris, France.
There’s this general notion people have about France. They are snobs, not friendly, they don’t like Americans, especially kids.
Now I realize it was an overt conspiracy to keep us generic ham and cheese eaters out. They are protecting one of their national treasures: the Croque Monsieur.
Bon Appetit says Grilled ham and cheese: nothing to scoff at. Baked ham and cheese with velvety béchamel oozing out all over the place: mind-altering.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Eating my first Croque Monsieur at a sidewalk cafe in artsy Montmartre was veritable rapture. Every carnal craving, every lustful longing appeased with the initial crunch of the finely toasted bread, accompanied by an angel chorus of warm, salty ham, gooey Gruyère cheese, and the tangy, faint prick of Dijon. The pinnacle of pleasure perfectly accented with a crispy cool Chardonnay, as if those same angels’ tiny toes were tap dancing across my tongue.
The French have certainly earned the right to culinary snobbery. They have earned the privilege of looking down their fine noses at those who slap together a slice of Kraft and a wad of honey ham torn from a plastic package.
BIO: Susan M. Sparks is a freelance ghostwriter of 24 non-fiction titles and avid student of the memoir and essay craft. As a former military spouse, she has lived all over the globe, with volcano eruptions in Sicily to super typhoons in Guam, and all but one state that begins with “I.” She is back home again in Indiana. She begins each day with coffee, morning pages, and a walk along the edge of Morse Reservoir with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.