Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Eating

“It’s the ingredients!” my mother used to shriek when we first lived in France back in the 1970s. Giddily bouncing around the covered market in Bourg-la-Reine, she would lustfully ogle fresh fruits and vegetables, giggle over the almost-alive fish glistening on beds of chopped ice, and gape in wonder over the huge variety of dairy products, most of which we had never heard of. I would roll my eyes and tell myself, with superior 12-year-old wisdom, that my mother was nuts, which she is (but that’s another story), but in this particularly instance, she was spot on.

Because the real reason that you can eat so well in France is that the building blocks of cooking are vastly superior to those in certain other English-speaking countries, such as the US. After all, if you build a house out of, let’s say, straw, it’s not going to hold up anywhere near as well as one of brick (sorry, I’ve been spending too much time with a six-year-old). And if you throw together a salad with a baseball-hard and equally tasteless tomato and some watery, if pretty, lettuce, you are obviously not going to get the same effect as with a sun-ripened coeur de boeuf and a mitt-full of delicate feuille de chene.

It’s not that the French even necessarily cook better than Americans. It’s that there are better things to eat here. In fact, I think American chefs are rather masterful in that they can actually cook so well under extremely challenging culinary circumstances. A case in point is my lunch today. I had forgotten all about it and suddenly realized I was starving. I opened up my refrigerator and pulled this and that out in the hopes of coming up with something edible and found myself eating an endive salad with chopped walnuts and vinagrette and a sandwich on a fresh baguette with pâté forestière. As I was about to take a bite I reminded myself that this simple lunch would cost me a bloody fortune in New York. True, I make a thing out of going to the local covered market and buying fun stuff like that (whereas an alarming number of my French friends go to the supermarket—“no!” I tell them “think if your culinary heritage! Don’t do it!”—whereby my friends look at me as if I am nuts, and I am, but that’s another story). But the fact of the matter is that all those fun and delicious goodies and good produce are there, if you are willing to go out and look a little.

So I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that beyond whatever health benefits, ecological benefits, and economic benefits there are to eating locally produced, fresh food, there are also the intrinsic bon vivant benefits: the intense pleasure of eating good things. For the moment, France has not yet entirely caved in to the bland convenience of supermarkets. Let’s hope it stays that way.


cessyaaaa, caroline said...
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Starman said...

And yet,in spite of their obvious foodie pride, they still build the worst kitchens in the modern world.

David said...

Finally an American that understands this!!!

(and that healthy is not synonym with fat-free)

More power to you.

Margie Rynn said...

True, Starman, I never thought of that. French kitchens do tend to lack something, like space for example. You don't see this in older houses. I wonder if there is a relationship between the tiny modern kitchens, with (gasp) electric stoves, and the growing tendency to buy prepared foods and rely on the supermarket.

David said...

Starman, Margie, have you ever set foot in a French house, and not just in a small Parisian apartment?

As for why French people go to supermarkets and buy prepared food... Well, believe it or not, but French have jobs and these kinds of things. Contrary to popular belief, a typical day in a French person's life is not spending your morning at the farmer's market, then debating philosophy for hours at the local café, then make love all afternoon long, then read a good book.
Believe me, I wish it were.

Margie Rynn said...

David, yes actually I spend ever summer in the country with my inlaws where I step in many old French houses. And yes of course I understand that modern life includes time constraints, and believe it or not I too work. And I also know that even if you are working your brains out and have kids, if you make it a priority it is possible (and often cheaper) to go to the farmers market on the weekend and stock up for the week. And many of the women that I'm talking about, who buy everything at the supermarket - people I know - are stay at home moms, so what's their excuse?

David said...

And you think that kitchen in houses lack space?
Maybe that's because you're too used to American kitchen in big houses, personally I think they are a waste of space (especially seeing how they're used most of the time)

As far as stay-at-home mom who buy everything in the supermarkets, yes, shame on them.

Starman said...

David, you need to lighten up a bit. We're not French bashers, we're just commenting on our experiences.

David said...

Starman, don't worry, I think you put a tone in my voice that was not there.

I was just surprised (still am) by your "worst" to qualify French kitchen, and I wondered what was so bad about them.

If it's just a question of size. Well, first size is relative and cultural. Then, maybe your experience was solely based on Paris apartments. I know many Americans whose only contact with French houses were those, and of course they had a distorted image of what a French house really is.

David said...

Great posting. I started to get weird looks at work as I was laughing out loud.

... however, I'm not even going to try to get involved with the size arguement ;-)

ejm said...

This is simply not true.

Perhaps coming from the East Coast, yes. But go into any whole foods market on the West Coast of the United States, even in a secondary or tertiary city... the sheer variety and quality of fruits and vegetables far exceeds anything you'll find in Paris.

A case in point: leafy greens for cooking. Basically, here in Paris, you've got spinach. Cabbage, if you count that. That's mostly all you'll find in your average supermarket, covered market, or street market. If you hunt around, you'll find some chard.

Now go to a supermarket in, say, Eugene, Oregon. What will you find? Two or three varieties of spinach. Maybe four varieties of chard. Mustard greens, kale, collard greens, bok choi, ... all fresh, many organic and locally grown (or, at a stretch, trucked in from California's Central Valley), all delicious.

That's just one case in point. Make the same comparison for mushrooms, for apples, for plums (I'd love a pluot just now), just about anything.

I'll give you certain categories: bread, cheese, prepared foods like pâté. But these are not the "ingredients".

People are under some common delusion, so strong that it defies the very evidence before them, that produce is better in France. It's not.

David said...

Ejm, you're guilty of confusing Paris with France here.
I too, am embarrassed by the quality (or lack of thereof) of food one can find in Paris, including in open air markets (that are by no means farmer's markets)...
Try French food one day as opposed to Parisian food... ;-)

I have also heard about some place that have great food on the West Coast, but they're the exceptions in the US, not the norm.
Moreover, don't confuse variety and quality either. :-)

Margie Rynn said...

Are we living in the same city? Do you go to open air markets? Perhaps what is tripping you up is that food is much more seasonal here, as in you are not going to find many apples in August. My mother wasn't squealing about the quantity of ingredients, but the quality. The variety of types of vegetables depends on season and area (you should check out an artichoke stand in Provence). There might be less selection in Paris than in the provinces, but there is still plenty of excellent produce in open air markets, and sometimes in supermarkets. Granted, things are improving in the states, but let's talk availability. Whole Foods is well and good but it is WAY more expensive than your average supermarket and hence out of range for your regular working joe. Open air markets can get pricey here, but if you go to Barbes, you'll get much better prices than Blvd. Raspail. The choice is there.

By the way, plum season is just starting. I dare you to find a mirabelle at Whole Foods!

ejm said...

Yes, I too love the mirabelle and the reine-claude plums, and I look forward to them with great anticipation each summer in Paris. Just as I look forward to the clochard apples in the autumn.

There are certainly delights to be found here. But I absolutely stand by what I said: in comparison with the US West Coast, Paris is food-poor in both the variety and quality of its fresh fruits and vegetables.

Even La Grande Épicerie or the marché bio of the Boulevard Raspail fall far short. And complementing these with the market at Barbès or the big Tang Frères supermarket in the 13th only goes partway towards filling the gap.

I don't dispute that people of modest means have a better selection in Paris than do most working class Americans. But the fruit and vegetables on offer to the middle class here do not reflect the Paris's status as one of the world's wealthiest cities.

Margie Rynn said...

While it is true that you will find much better produce outside of Paris (I was a little shell-shocked after being spoiled rotten with incredible fruits and veggies when I lived in Avignon), I still say you can get great stuff in Paris. First off, you must stay far away from places like La Grande Epicerie. Boutique groceries stores give me the heebee geebees. That's not food, that's fashion. Go to the Marché d'Aligre in the 12th. It's huge, it's noisy, and its not expensive. If you want the fancy stuff, go inside the covered market. I live out in the suburbs, but I can attest to just-picked local produce at the Marché Caron in Suresnes. From the farmers who grew the stuff. Look for stands that say "maraichers" or "producteurs". I believe that food tastes better when you've met the people that produce it.

Maybe things have changed a lot since I lived in California and the tomatoes can no longer be used as substitutes for baseballs. Maybe things are better in Oregon. I hope so. But I think calling Paris "food poor" is going a bit far.