Expanding My Comfort Zone: Finding American Food in France
- Published on Tuesday, 30 October 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
Now, Where’s All the
Plain, poppy, shallot, bacon, foie gras... just like any New York deli!
Other than wishing that it cost a soupçon less, I have no complaints about French cuisine. It is indisputably one of the world’s main cultural achievements and, much more importantly, one of the main reasons I moved here from the United States.
Nonetheless, like everyone else with a memory and a digestive tract, I can’t help but get the occasional hankering for foods that I associate with fond recollections of my schooldays: chemically flavored cheese spreads, Vienna sausages, fruit cocktail fresh from the can, Salisbury steak the texture of cardboard, string beans boiled ’til they’re nothing but strings, mashed potatoes that could double as an industrial adhesive...
Oh wait — those are the foods that I associate with dropping out of school and fleeing the country to evade prosecution for assaulting a cafeteria worker. But that’s a different story.
So yes, there are some American foods that I do not exactly miss. And of the ones that I do, very few were readily available when I first arrived in France in the 1980s.
Back then, American food in Paris was pretty much limited to a handful of specialty shops and barbecue restaurants. I’m not counting American fast food franchises, which were and still are (way too) easy to find, because I didn’t and still don’t crave what they have to offer. Nor consider it food.
For many years, I regularly traveled across town to patronize an American grocery store on Rue de Grenelle solely because it was the only place where I could find the one snack item that I missed most: tortilla chips. Sometimes my longing was so acute that I would consume half an XL bag in the Métro on the way home, shoveling them in with an avidity and singleness of purpose that would cause people next to me to suddenly recall an important errand at the next stop.
I suppose it wasn’t a pretty sight. If there were such a thing as elective limb-grafting surgery, I would have considered getting an extra hand spliced on to help me frontload the cornmeal even faster.
Today, the regular riders of the number 12 line and I are happy to report, tortilla chips can be found at virtually any convenience store in France. This has been the pattern: gradually over the years, the American foods that I craved, and some that I didn’t, arrived on the market one by one, including doughnuts, barbecue potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, American-style (i.e. non-Italian) (i.e. non-authentic) (but good) pizza, muffins, hot dogs and even cupcakes.
Corn on the cob, one of the few things that could actually keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree, is another good example. I grew up literally surrounded by cornfields and am very familiar with the transcendent pleasure of eating a newly picked, freshly shucked, al dente-boiled and lavishly buttered ear of corn.
Which for a long time was an impossibility in Paris, but in the past 10 years many greengrocers have been offering halfway decent sweet corn in the late summer and early fall. Before that, the only non-canned (i.e., even thinkable) corn in Paris came in the form of pre-shucked cobs that had been desiccating under shrinkwrap long enough to partially petrify — worthless as nourishment, but quite handy if you happened to be building a scale model of the Flintstone Mobile.
And yet, throughout all this time, there was still one holdout, one Yankee delicacy that just never seemed to find its way across the Atlantic: bagels.
By which I mean “bagels worthy of the name.” It has long been possible to find something called beigels in the Marais, but they are essentially just round bread with a hole in the middle. Sometimes very good round bread, with a truly excellent hole in the middle, but not genuine bagels.
Then, starting in about 2005, New York-style boiled bagels began showing up at various lunch stands around Paris. I tried them all. Once. They invariably turned out to be formerly frozen, insipid imitations of the real thing.
But “Persevere” is my middle name (my parents couldn’t spell “Percival”), so when a new bagel boutique opened on Rue Saint Lazare a scant block away from my building, I decided to give it a try. The place has a wide variety of varieties in the window, brought in (but not baked there) fresh every morning. They looked good.
And, turns out, they are good. Not great, but good. They don’t quite achieve that seemingly incongruous combination of freshness and toothy toughness that a superb bagel should have, the texture that induces the endorphin-boosting sensation of savoring something fresh from the oven while simultaneously wondering if you’re about to bust a cuspid.
But they will do. And, as I discovered shortly after this discovery, I can even get Philadelphia Cream Cheese in the larger supermarkets now. So anytime I want to (except Sunday) I can satisfy my bagel jones. If not my lox smith.
I have just been served notice from the International Humor Tribunal in The Hague that I am officially barred from ending an article with a sophomoric, or even post-graduatic, pun. So I can’t stop here either.
Therefore, I will close with an anecdote about one of my early experiences with American food in Paris...
In about 1986, give or take a month, an American barbecue restaurant that I liked threw a July 4th party on the banks of the Seine. They rented a barge moored just upstream from Notre Dame, set up a buffet inside and a row of roasting pits outside, and sold tickets that could be redeemed on the day for dinner and a glass of wine.
Nancy and I decided to go. As it turned out, this was not the wisest decision we had ever made.
There were two problems. One, it rained, and two, the restaurant had sold so many tickets there wasn’t enough room for everyone to physically fit inside the barge.
The idea had been to use the indoor deck only for serving and have people eat sitting outside on the riverbank. But when a cloudburst made sitting by the river about as comfortable as sitting in the river, we all trooped inside.
The throng was so tightly packed, it was impossible to form a line to the buffet tables. So people just sort of squeezed against and around each other until they could squirm past the serving stations.
When, after considerable waiting and maneuvering, I was extruded from the end of the line, I found myself with a heaping plate of barbecued chicken, salad, red beans and rice in one hand, a plastic cup of wine in the other, a napkin wrapped around a knife and fork tucked into my shirt pocket and, interestingly, no place to eat.
There were no tables or chairs, and in fact no horizontal surfaces whatsoever on which to set a cup, let alone a plate. Except the floor, which of course was already full to capacity with feet.
There was only one solution: chug the wine, chuck the cup and eat standing up. For dessert, I amused myself by watching people exit the buffet line, look around, come to the same inevitable conclusion and begin gulping down their wine.
In many ways this SRO feeding frenzy was an apt metaphor for my Métro-borne mainlining of tortilla chips: enduring an inconvenient, time-consuming process to procure food and then devouring it in an unattractive way in the midst of a dense crowd. While wishing for a third arm.
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Reader Georgia Smith writes: "I'm sorry to have to write this message, but there's a wishful-tasting syndrome associated with even the most sophisticated Americans in Paris that I must flag here. A couple of weeks ago, I was over in the ninth and saw a flyer for the bagel place on the rue St Lazare. I did not mosey over there, I dashed. I flew. I parked illegally across the street. I ran in and (after suffering the peculiarly rigid ordering process that turned three customers into a 15-minute wait), I got my booty, a couple of poppyseed bagels. They looked good! I dashed home. I bit into one.
"Sorry, Charlie. These are not bagels. They are just as bad as usual. They're not even real bagel dough, or if they are, they haven't been cooked properly. Maybe they were just baked, not boiled before baking. I don't know. They're not okay.
"The trouble is, if one has been starved for something for a long time, and one gets something that looks so close to the thing itself (usually, Paris bagels look as lousy as they taste), one can convince oneself that it is the thing itself. This happens a lot with tourists who come to Paris, step into any old café, order something classic like soupe de poisson, and are presented with a grim bowl of slightly sour fish goo boiled to death with some sort of dire vegetable leavings, the whole thing resembling, ultimately, a bait-shop slop pail. They taste it and say it's great! They will never, however, order it again, because despite being 'great,' it didn't really taste that good, and the texture was a little off-putting. In short, it was terrible. But if one is convinced that the thing ought to be good, and it looks good, even maybe smells okay, one can convince oneself briefly that the flavor was there.
"Nix. These bagels must be left to the only people who will eat such stuff. The French."
David Jaggard responds: "Hmm. So my saying 'not great but good' is not good enough. Good thing this wasn't a restaurant review."
Reader Atala Ornett writes: "Haven't worked my way up to trying to find bagels, but I'm stymied as to why one can find tortilla and Dorito chips (in some of the oddest flavors, too) everywhere, but no Fritos. Sour cream is also impossible to find."
Reader Sam Taub writes: "My solution to the bagel problem in Paris: I go to Picard. Even though they are frozen, when thawed and toasted they are pretty genuine. They are plain bagels. They come from New York and cost only €2.40 euros for four.
"It suffices to take one out of the freezer around 15 minutes before, then complete the pre-slicing with a steak knife, pop them in a toaster, and they're ready. I buy Philadelphia cream cheese (with chives), available in Monoprix supermarkets and Monop stores. I buy a sweet onion at the fruit and vegetable market. As an alternative to lox, I sometimes use tarama. The Monoprix tarama, made mostly from cabillaud (cod) with some trout eggs, is the best solution for me."
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