I had lunch at The Crepe Place with a friend who has been doing a great deal of her own cooking lately. She has been busy reinventing the “comfort food” of her childhood into dishes that are, well, healthier. We started with a pot of chai at one of the small tables against the wall in the back room, and she told me about her latest meal reincarnations. Hamburger Helper evolved into turkey sausage with brown rice and peas. Her new “mega nachos” are topped with Gimme Lean sausage, a can of cooked black beans, and soy Monterey jack cheese, with lots of fresh locally made salsa. The lasagna – the kind our mothers made with pounds and pounds of mozzarella cheese, ricotta mixed with eggs and pepper, and meaty tomato sauce – became grilled vegetable lasagna. She roasted eggplant and red peppers and sautéed mushrooms with onions and garlic and whatever else tempted her at the farmer’s market, and layered the whole thing together with whole wheat noodles and yellow tomato sauce and lowfat mozzarella cheese. The goal has been to create exceptionally high – nutrition meals that still feel good by substituting whole grain, lean meats, and piles of vegetables.
The Crepe Place was the perfect spot to have this conversation, because they have done some reinventing of their own, with this traditional French dish. The first crepes, the Latin cruspus, curly or wavy bread, were made in France by Roman invaders. Ancient chefs spooned their batter over a hot stone and cooked it next to a hot fire. The result? Wavy bread, to hold whatever meats or vegetables were available. Over the years, these evolved into ultra thin pancakes, made with white flour, filled with ham or seafood and creamy white sauce to be served as an entrée, or as dessert topped with fruit, jams, or butter.
The Crepe Place has substituted whole wheat flour for the white flour, creating a crepe that is almost as thick as a pancake and as large as a dinner plate. The heft is needed to hold the voluminous fillings – my Alexander the Crepe was piled high with crunchy green asparagus, chicken, mushrooms, and slivers of roasted almonds. We tried the Jambalaya, a zesty, garlicky combination of shrimp, andouille sausage, mushrooms, and olives, and didn’t stop until we had polished off the day’s special, a more delicate crab and mushroom mixture with dill sauce. (They were all three delicious.) Their list of “Create A Crepe” fillings include popular and widely available ingredients like breaded eggplant, cranberries, and tofu. Spinach Supreme, Asparagus, Avocado, and Vegetable combinations all appeal to Santa Cruzans’ taste for lots of gently roasted fresh vegetables. There are even comfort food-type of crepes for everyone, like the turkey with cranberries and the Special Salsa chock full of black olives, avocado, and sour cream.
As we ate we laughed about the first crepes we ever ate, in high school French class. Our teacher, Sister Judith, made small saucer-sized pancakes in the classroom for us, filled them with lemon pudding, and sprinkled them with powdered sugar. We ate them as we studied our maps of Paris and conjugated French verbs. She had recreated the dish according to her perceptions of what a class full of sixteen-year-olds would eat.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then reinvention is the product of desire. Whatever we want – whether it is a healthier version of childhood favorites, or an Italian flavored French dish – we can make with a little imagination. Luckily, we live in a time and place with an abundance of good, fresh choices, and luckily we have restaurants like The Crepe Place willing to satisfy those desires.
This piece was originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel sometime in 2004. I’m happy to have found it in my archives and be able to post it now that the Kids are young adults and these particular challenging times are behind me, and particularly thankful for the reminders of the memories we all made and shared.